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X-57 Maxwell
This artist’s concept of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane’s specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. (Credit: NASA Langley / Advanced Concepts Lab / AMA Inc.)

NASA says it has received its first X-plane designation in a decade, for a research aircraft that has 14 electric motors built into a slimmed-down wing. The X-57 hybrid electric airplane picked up a new nickname as well: Maxwell.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the name and the number today at Aviation 2016, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition. The development highlights the first “A” in the acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” Bolden said in a news release.

The X-plane designation, which applies to experimental airplane built for the government, was assigned by the U.S. Air Force in response to a NASA request. The first X-plane was the X-1 rocket plane, which became the first plane to go supersonic in 1947. The most recent NASA X-plane was the X-48 blended-wing aircraft, which was tested between 2007 and 2012.

NASA said its Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology Operations Research project, also known as SCEPTOR, will create the all-electric X-57 at Armstrong Flight Research Center in California by modifying an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft.

Engineers will replace the wing and its two gas-fueled piston engines with a custom-designed skinny wing that has 14 electric motors. Twelve of the motors will be embedded in the wing for takeoffs and landings. Two larger motors will be placed on the wing tips for use while at cruise altitude.

The plan is to demonstrate that distributed electric propulsion can get a private plane flying at 175 mph for a fifth of the energy expenditure. All-electric propulsion could open the way for cheaper, quieter, more ubiquitous air taxis – popularly known as flying cars. And because all of the power comes from onboard batteries, such planes would be emission-free. The plane is nicknamed Maxwell to honor 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

NASA says it’s planning to roll out as many as five larger transport-scale X-planes as part of its New Aviation Horizons initiative.

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